Title: Sweet Evil
Author: Wendy Higgins
Publisher: Harper Teen
Series: Sweet Evil #1
Other Reviews for This Author: None
My first reading of a novel that Harper acquired from their now-defunct Inkpop website was not so hot. Carrier of the Mark had a lot of negatives and positives, but the negatives ultimately made me feel 'meh' about the novel. Sweet Evil is the second and, so far, last novel acquired from the website, which has since merged with the writing website Figment. Based on this alone, it's safe to say that I approached it with trepidation. Higgins and Fallon (the author of Carrier of the Mark) are critique partners of some type and, based on their popularity with the Inkpop community, probably share a style that caused the members of said community to flock to their work. While some of Sweet Evil's execution shows a need for improvement, the book is undeniably fun, making it (in my opinion) probably the best thing that Harper Teen has put out as a direct-to-paperback release.
Anna is, without a doubt, the nicest girl to be found in the South. She avoids doing anything that would be morally blackening: smoking, drinking, doing drugs, having casual sex, and even lying. To say that Anna is a goody-goody is an understatement. Something about Anna's personality suggests a girl that, kind and good-hearted as she may be, can be taken advantage of. The downside to Anna's kindness is very apparent to the general public, and she isn't the most popular girl because of it. She may be the type of person to help someone in trouble out, but she's also the type of person to tattle on cheaters or remind the teacher about collecting homework for the day. Between that and the ease of her trust, Anna doesn't always make the best impression on other teenagers - and she can tell, too, because of her ability to read emotions.
She does have a best-friend, Jay, who watches out for her well being. With no romantic interest in Jay (or vice versa), Anna enjoys spending time with him, especially when he takes her to concerts. Jay acquires several tickets for concerts around Anna's sixteenth birthday, and it leads her to meeting Kaiden, the drummer of a popular band. Kaiden is the antithesis to Anna - dark, mysterious, and very, very dangerous. Something about Anna is undeniably attracted to Kaiden, yet she also feels very strongly about avoiding him. After all, Kaiden isn't exactly the type of person that Anna wants to associate with. Anna does get invited to a school party later on by an attractive guy from the popular crowd who seems interested in her. Though it sounds like a joke, Anna reads his emotions as ones of genuine interest. Her readings are never wrong, so what's the harm in exploring romantically?
The repercussions are disastrous. Jay starts flirting with a girl that he's interested in, and Anna goes off with her pseudo-date, trying to avoid the amount of ludicrous drinking going on around her. She comes face-to-face with a popular-girl-gone-drunk that is actually friendly to her, but she also has to deal with Scott giving her a little something to loosen up. Anna doesn't get drunk, either. She gets drugged. Scott's intentions are far less honorable than she could ever dream of, and she gets saved by Kaiden, a lucky dark knight coming to her rescue. Things only get crazier from there. Anna learns that Kaiden is like her, yet at the same time isn't. Both teenagers are descendants of beings that are far from human...and represent the forces of good and evil personified in human sin and compassion. The two begin an intense romance that is defied by their natures and their respective heritages, yet they find themselves as addictive as the sins that they have to resist day after day. Anna may be a good girl, but she's about to discover just how fun temptation can be.
Let's get this out of the way right now - from a characterization viewpoint, Anna and her companions are not superbly nuanced in their actions or interactions. Higgins does attempt to include enough dimension to make them stand out while reading, but it's not done in a way that is particularly impressive - at least, not in a way that breaks boundaries. Anna is every bit as good as she is made out to be in the beginning. She's a pure-of-heart kind of girl that watches the teens around her making mistakes without doing so herself. She doesn't do it because she's full of herself or even because she hasn't thought about it, but rather because she feels torn up inside whenever she so much as lies to someone. Higgins makes it pretty clear that Anna's level of goodness is abnormal and more than just a Mary Sue personality trait gone awry. Yes, at times Anna takes on the quality to a frustrating degree, but Higgins does a solid job of broadening Anna's characterization as the story progresses. It mostly coincides with meeting Kaiden, but on a deeper level it has to do with Anna's true self. Higgins works with a very polarizing mythology that allows Anna's personality and its very direct contradictions to feel contextually accurate, even if it wouldn't fly with another character. As a reader, I was ready to believe that Anna could be as pure as she was...but also as tempted by a taboo relationship and drugs/alcohol as she was...because of that mythology that Higgins expanded upon as the narrative progressed. The best thing about Anna from a reader's perspective is that she's enjoyable to read about and keeps a personal set of morals, sticking to them and grappling with them as she grows as a person. Her decisions don't feel needlessly stupid or, as in the case of some uber-strong female characters, so non-emotional/emotionally protective that she feels hard to like. Anna is ultimately an accessible, sweet protagonist that is easy to cheer on, even though her characterization is limited in how it's presented in the text.
Moving on to more boy-focused subjects...I am going to take a moment to say "Heck yes" to the attractive boy from the dark side. I've talked about the cliche. I've probably used the words "dark", "mysterious", and "brooding" to describe almost every male hero in YA these days - at least from a reviewer's standpoint - and it has yet to get old when an author does it right. Kaiden is that well-done hero. He's the type of bad boy that is equal parts actually bad and equal parts sensitive, especially when it comes to Anna. Higgins does a great job of showing his worse sides while making it clear to the reader that it's part of how he grew up and learned about himself as a supernatural being. There's just enough nuance through his character arc to make him feel unique, to feel attractive to the reader in the way that he is attractive to Anna. Their relationship does mimic Twilight in its intense sexual tension. Every kiss and almost-kiss between Anna and Kaiden is painful. Extremely painful. These two have chemistry that is one chemical reaction away from exploding. It's almost frustrating in just how well their romance plays out. Sweet Evil ends on a romantic cliffhanger, too, so it's doubly frustrating. Higgins is actually fairly real with how the two struggle with their physical relationship and their emotional one because of their differences in personality. Nothing about it felt overly contrite or stupid, and Kaiden and Anna were always in character with their actions towards each other. Higgins just finds this great, sexy balance between these two being together and being apart. Everything is rich and keeps you on your toes. Granted, their relationship is basic in the sense that their problems are pretty simple and external to some degree, yet there's enough internal conflict to keep things feeling solid in execution.
The other characters are basic and don't provide with nearly as much entertainment on their own. The mythology makes it difficult for Higgins to dig into her villains beyond a basic "he/she is evil" way, and the same goes for holy side characters. Angels and demons stay angels and demons in Sweet Evil - of course, Anna's father is a part of the small minority of the demonic side that shows human tendencies. Higgins does inject bits of ambiguity here and there, but it's hard to tell sometimes because of how the good and evil is shown. Partying, drinking, doing drugs, rape....they all fall under a very large umbrella of "dangers to warn teens about" that also appear frequently as devices demons use to encourage people to sin. Higgins manages to not make this seem too preachy, as Anna ends up doing more of this stuff after she discovers her heritage than after, and it's not necessarily because she wants to. Anna and her group of supernatural friends all represent a fair usage of character to provide the story with a level of realism. They are a mixture of good and evil, relying on their own perceptions of how to deal with their heritage and their powers in order to either work with their demonic parents or to oppose them subtly. Jay, a non-supernatural friend of Anna's, is also solid and entertaining in his own right. Higgins makes it clear that he isn't love triangle fodder, too, which is a huge help in keeping this book from feeling like a Twilight ripoff (which happened with Carrier of the Mark). The only real downside is that the side characters are entertaining but don't ever reach a level of dimension or individuality that makes them stand out, even as fun-but-shallow characters. They're useful for the plot progression and for showing off some of Higgins' strengths, but they just don't show strong personalities via actions the way Anna and Kai do.
Its origins on Inkpop had me wondering about the quality of the writing. Writing websites tend to have a mixture of styles like traditional publishing, yet the style of what became popular on Inkpop often mirrored the type of writing found in current self-publishing hits today. Higgins does have a wordy style that invokes a fair amount of exposition coupled with a lot of dialogue, but it feels more controlled than non-edited self-published works. The wordiness isn't always necessary, and there are most certainly scenes and passages that could be stripped down or removed from the text with little to no difference in the overall story, yet the journey Anna takes in Sweet Evil is so enjoyable that the reader wants those extra passages to be there. It's a world that's fun to read about, plain and simple. Higgins' style also has its strong points, too. The dialogue between characters is often fun and shows sparks of humor. Anna and Kai's dialogues always have a solid power-balance thing going on, and Higgins most certainly gets the teen voice down within the dialogue. Her exposition doesn't always fit the voice, but it's easy enough to get into because of how engaging everything else is.
The world is also engaging, which I was honestly surprised about. Yes, angel books are some of my favorites in YA. Hush, Hush was one of my first post-Twilight reads (which I read prior to blogging) that I became a fanboy over, and the angel angle was a major part of why that happened. It's just hard to find any angel mythology that treads the ground in an interesting, dynamic way after reading so much of it. Not every book is as unique as, say, A Touch Mortal. Sweet Evil uses a far more traditional take on the mythology while still putting some fun spins on the angels and demons routine, and readers who enjoy angels will appreciate the way that Higgins has fun with everything involved. The good vs. evil stuff feels more black-and-white than it should be in some areas, but in others Higgins injects something more ambiguous. This book doesn't go the route of the Halo series, though, which is a huge relief as a reader. Higgins does spend a decent amount of time building a world for her characters, and it never feels like a tacked-on device used to tell this particular type of story. Sometimes the sensibilities behind it are questionable or vague, but the general goals behind the angels and demons are basic enough to make the plot feel sensible. She also provides herself with a lot of material to expand on in a future book or two. It's nothing that will impress a reader who doesn't like the type of mythology and/or romance being presented, but readers that like YA PNR will most definitely enjoy this world.
I can't say that Sweet Evil is without faults. After I finished reading it, I wanted to give it five stars and leave it at that - it was that enjoyable and clicked with the reader end of my brain like so few books have this year. Yet, I couldn't ignore some of the other aspects from an editorial end. The book could have been trimmed more. Characters could have been given just a smidgen more depth and detail to their personalities. The ending could have been stronger, too, instead of a cliffhanger that will frustrate readers. So much of this book was fun, though, and fun in a way that I haven't read in a long time. It had the perfect balance between a struggling-with-temptation romance and a plot that kept me turning pages, even if it was predictable in some spots. I haven't read a book that I've had so much pure enjoyment with in quite some time, and I hope that Higgins writes more in this world - I can't let it go now, especially with the way she ended Sweet Evil. Next book, please and thank you.
Cover: Eh. The guy behind the girl is creepy, but that dress is gorgeous. You see my priorities here. It's nothing really special, yet it tells me that it will be a standard YA PNR - which is pretty accurate.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!)